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How More Diversity in Variety Shows Can Build a Stronger Art Community

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What do you think of when you think of a “variety show”? Various performers set the stage ranging from singers, dancers, and other types of performance art. But to create the ultimate variety show, there’s more to it than a variety of performers. The perfect variety show has a magic to it with true diversity; an array of viewpoints, tone, performance art types, and backgrounds, and is inclusive with folks with diverse identities.

A moment from Richie’s performance – photo by Petrina Robins

Last month, I went to a surprisingly delightful event in San Francisco, Fun Stuff. It was the first time in nearly 2 years that I felt like things were “back to normal” and I was sitting in a room with people outside of my bubble with seemingly all my worries behind. Magic was created by organizer Richie Rhombus. The performances ranged from belly-laughable comedians to sultry belly dances, and politically-charged spoken word performances.

I haven’t been able to shake how much fun I had at “Fun Stuff” and it got me thinking – what does it take to build a Variety Show that someone won’t forget? Turns out, it’s many factors and, if done well, a Variety Show can build a new kind of art community. A community that is diverse, and unique which brings in an audience of richly diverse and unique folks as well.

Richie organized the event in a very particular way. First, it was hosted in the intimate space Raining Chainsaws (lead by Noona Noland, Paul Hayes, Rose Harden, and Mark Perez) which featured art installations by Hayes and other delightful decor designed by the Raining Chainsaw’s team. Performances had a natural flow between them yet kept you guessing as to the type of performer that would follow the other. Each artist had their own unique point of view, individual talents, and ability to captivate the audience. I had moments where I laughed so hard I cried and moments I stood there wondering – wait, where am I (?!), completely in awe of a performer’s ability to suck me in.

Art inside the Raining Chainsaw’s venue by Paul Hayes – photo from the Raining Chainsaw venue Facebook

I went home that evening talking to my boyfriend about how it is so refreshing to be around people in this type of environment – where I didn’t exactly know what mystery would be revealed during Fun Stuff but I left feeling like I discovered something new while also having this feeling of nostalgia.

A few days later, I invited Richie over for an array of cookies and some questions about their perspective. When asked about what it takes to create the perfect Variety Show, Richie Rhombus speaks to many aspects that create a special unity and magic in the performance that is hard to explain; it’s more than just organizing a fun event. Community, communication, being able to rely on each other, diversity, transparency, and working together in a way that feels great to everyone involved. 

Diverse kinds of arts that provide a sense of unique access into the artist’s personal worlds or cultural reflections that feel connecting and engaging, talented performers who are practiced and have the material they are proud of and skilled at, diverse kinds of people as performers and within the audience, so people can approach one another with a sense of wonder, and curiosity, and invitation. A space that’s well accommodating to performance and comfort, a space run by good people who are responsible and ethical, and who care very much about the people who come to the show. A way for the producer, performers, host, and everyone involved to work together in a way that feels good, with responsible decision making, tactical efforts, and empathetic connections.  A host that is fun, and lovable and is very intuitive and feels how to move an audience through what happens in the show, And a financially transparent approach that pays the performers and people involved responsibly, without hiding secret profits, so everyone knows how the money is used, so they feel valued, and validated,” says Richie.

Rose Harden dances on the stage – photo by Petrina Robins

One of the reasons that I feel “Fun Stuff” was such a memorable event to me is because Richie has an ambitious goal to create a new kind of community by actively bringing together acts from outside of their friend group; which will naturally create an array of different acts dissimilar to their own style of performance art. They feel strongly that in order for something to be a true variety show you must bring in folks that are different from yourself. If they keep pulling from the same pool of performers then they will not have true variety – and the crowd will nearly always be the same as well.

“I’ll go to as many shows as I can, find people I like, reach out to artists I trust and include people I feel inspired by and who are inspiring. Authenticity and honesty are important to me in art, so I prioritize that. And there’s definitely an important art to curation, so if there’s a particular essence or vibe that’s sought after,  that could inspire who I seek out,” says Richie.

Sabrina Wenske as “Crystal Moon Crystal PHD” – photo by Petrina Robins

Knowing that Richie is actively looking to create dynamic events that showcase true diversity, I’m even more excited for their next event. Will Richie be able to bring in acts that eventually bring together the performance art community? It’s not something anyone has tried to do yet and I believe they can do it.

The Bay Area art scene has been fractured due to multiple reasons. The housing market pushing artists out is one of them, fractured art communities after the pandemic, and also the lack of venues that support this type of art. But it’s really up to us to create things that bring the art scene back to life. We often say we have a Bay Area art scene – but do we if things are so fractured? Richie hopes to create more events that connect more communities and integrates us into a new type of art scene.

“I’ve never experienced the bay area art scene as centralized or all-connected. Often when people say the art scene is dying, they are referring to a specific aspect of art culture to which they’re connected. When really there are many different scenes that don’t always communicate or are not always integrated or included. And each scene, or movement, or spontaneous occurrence of art is each moving and changing in its own ways and at its own pace.

I do feel this city has a strong nature in its way of creativity, as far as encouragement, and collaboration and other cities also have special aspects in their ways of arts and doing things, so it really is about what artists need or want at different moments of their life, and sometimes this city supplies, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes artists can sustain their own creative realities here, and sometimes they can’t.

What can be done to help make an art scene stay alive, is to experience which of these different kinds of art cultures want to combine and connect with each other, and make that happen. And create art. Encourage more art and support more artists, help artists, collaborate with artists, and fund artists. 

Because it is always up to us to create our city. If we see a problem in our surroundings, then actively striving to change our surroundings is how we’re going to arrive at a world we want.”

Dominic Santiago performs spoken word – photo by Petrina Robins

There have been moments when the Bay Area had a more integrated art scene. Where performance art was easy to find and enjoy. Back in the 2010s, I used to go to events created by the San Francisco Institute Of Possibility.  It was there I think I personally started to see these types of variety shows in which performance artists came together to create something magical. These events were known among my friends as being events that would always surprise and delight you – like the All World’s Faire in 2013. Sadly, types of events like these haven’t really been happening for a while – yes, pandemic times were part of it but also it feels like there’s more to it than that.

After two years of feeling isolated, I’m personally excited to see Richie bring us more events with playfulness, wonder, and excitement complete with their imaginative creativity. Playspaces where the viewer is carried into an event with the expectation that this event will not only bring them joy but surprise them with an artist that they had never heard of before. Where diversity is expected and community is built naturally through the magic of the show.

What’s next for Richie? Richie has always been a creator – there is no plan to stop creating art and experiences anytime soon. Currently, they are working collaboratively with the team at Raining Chainsaw’s to host another delightful “Variety Experience” which will likely happen sometime in May. They will work together to make sure the diversity within the program helps continue to tie art communities together through their collective experience. The best way to learn about these events is to join the email list.

The “Fun Stuff” variety show featured this amazing array of performers and artists:

Sig Hafstrom – Chanteuse (singer)

Clyde Always – Outrageous tall-tales and bawdy rhymes

Rose Harden – Alchemical dance performance (IG: @rosehipsdancer)

Richie – Performance story adventure-time (IG: richierhombus)

Dominique Nigro – “out like a lamb” authentic movement

Sabrina Wenske – Bouffon/clown explorations  (IG: @itsbinapleasure)

Dana Merwin – Clown & character (IG: merwind)

Dominic Santiago – Political spoken word

Sierra Camille (IG: @the_sierraerialist)

Art by Paul Hayes

Puppet by Paul Hayes

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Katy Atchison

Katy Atchison

Katy has lived in The Bay Area since the age of 3. While other kids were attending summer camp & soccer practice, she was raised selling wares at craft shows with her working artist parents and spent vacations in a small 1920s Montana log cabin. This has all given her a unique perspective on the ever-changing texture of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. Currently a blend of all that is The Bay Area - she's a web designer at a tech-company, artist and DIY teacher.